In times of lockdown, long shadows and shortening days, it seems counter-intuitive to turn to a new scandi-noir series for an additional helping of bleakness. Yet there is a sense that the unique features of this popular genre, with its combination of stark landscapes and maverick investigators waging battle against wrongdoers, are exactly what we need when days are dark, and travel restricted.
Danish series 'DNA', an eight-parter set in Denmark, Poland and France, sets up enough horrors in the first episode: there are missing babies, serial killers, systemic racism, relationships blighted by tragedy and a particularly nightmarish event where Rolf Larsen, the policeman investigating the case of an abducted toddler, makes a fateful decision to pursue a lead to Poland, with catastrophic consequences for himself and his wife when his own baby daughter, Andrea, mysteriously disappears from the deck of the ferry, from which he has momentarily absented himself through sea-sickness. It is Larsen's quest to find out what happened to his daughter, with non-too sympathetic colleagues, that interconnects with the story of Julita, a resourceful Polish single-mother who refuses to believe her own baby was still-born; both will use every power at their disposal, in the face of obstructive authority (Larsen) and being poor (Julita) to track and discover the fate of their missing children.
The action takes place over a five-year period, with flash-backs and flash-forwards employed to service a complex plot involving a child-trafficking organisation, some very sinister nuns and a possible cover-up within the Danish police. Confusing, yes, but very well done – each piece of the puzzle is broadly in place by the last episode, give or take a few mental acrobatics on the part of the viewer. Larsen's bright young junior partner feeds him new leads from a makeshift office in Copenhagen (when she isn't wandering into deserted barns with no back-up whatsoever, which isn't very sensible) while his superior officer, a charisma-free bureaucrat, is mainly there to check that boundaries aren't crossed and that Larsen, a known 'maverick', won't stray into, God forbid, investigating the disappearance of his own daughter, another botched operation by the Danish police.
The viewer will have to suspend disbelief at a number of pivotal points. It is not too much of a spoiler, given that it is in the introductory episode, to say that a ferry where a missing child has been reported would not hastily disembark its cars and passengers while physically restraining the (policeman) father and allowing any perpetrator(s) to get away. And the plot really hinges on some very suspect practices on the part of Danish social services that probably, and hopefully, bear no resemblance to reality. Nor is the drama above serving up stereotypes – Charlotte Rampling, excellent throughout as the honest French counterpart to the investigation, Claire Bobin, is given to gnomic pronouncements in the manner of a stylish gallic Yoda. However, one of the strengths of the series, and the genre as a whole, is its refusal to put forward impossibly well-groomed protagonists (American programmes such as 'Big Little Lies' and 'The Undoing' for example) and instead use actors with more relatable appearances, especially as there is a great deal of informal surveillance work that involves sleeping in a car.
At the centre of the story is the issue of child-trafficking. The plot touches upon the problems of adoption for same-sex couples in France (see BioNews 773) as well as the pressures faced in highly conservative, staunchly catholic Poland by young, unmarried mothers. While it does not attempt to justify the various rackets that attempt to exploit these societal tensions for money, the drama does offer a sometimes more surprisingly nuanced interpretation of the motivations of those involved. In particular, the story highlights the way that a relaxation of child protection by poor or uncollaborative working practices (across borders or internal agencies) offer the unscrupulous the ideal conditions in which to turn these weaknesses to monetary advantage. Where gaps in the market appear, there are those keen to make the most of weaknesses in the system.
The heartbreak at the centre of the story is the life-sentence endured by the parents of the lost children, who must – somehow – heroically struggle on to make a life for themselves when everyone else has moved on. Child-trafficking is seen in this drama for the grim and opportunistic business it is; no matter how its perpetrators would seek to justify it on the grounds of religious dogma (single mother bad, two parents good) and on giving children the families they think they deserve, the wickedness at the heart of the whole enterprise is laid bare by the large sums that pass through the organisations and the vast legacy of unhappiness for the many injured innocent parties, including those who believed they had followed every correct adoption protocol. In treating children as a commodity, the traffickers are shown to belong to various strata of society, from the obviously criminal to the institutions that should protect the vulnerable.
A genuinely moving story, DNA asks the viewer to engage with loss, longing and deep resilience. This might seem like a tall order from what is essentially a thriller, but I did find myself drawn to its humanity and the heroism (some of it every day, some of it monumental) on display in Larsen and Julita's stories. While some character strands were predictably clunky (the obstructive boss, the naïve rookie) the story works at a rewarding pace and asks questions about parenthood and identity that can't ever fully be answered.